Human Resource and Labor Relations professionals (HR/LR) normally take the lead on workplace investigations of employee misconduct. Given that, they may also bear the blame for investigations that result in adverse employment actions that do not withstand litigation scrutiny. If a current or former employee challenges an adverse employment action via an EEOC or NLRB charge, a DOL complaint, a CBA grievance, or court action, the employer incurs significant expense and disruption simply defending the action. The employer’s exposure increases exponentially if the employer loses the case on the merits before a regulator or court. Consequently, HR/LR should devote sufficient time and attention to workplace investigations to avoid challenge in the first place, where possible, and to ensure the best chance of winning on the merits if a challenge does take place. But where to look for guidance? This blog answers that question and provides a checklist for HR/LR to follow to conduct employee misconduct investigations that will withstand litigation scrutiny.
On May 3, 2018, at our 15th Annual Labor Relations Conference, both the current and immediate-past Chairmen of the National Labor Relations Board will provide in-house counsel and human resources and labor relations professionals a special opportunity to see “behind the curtain.” Hear direct from these Presidential-appointees about where the NLRB has been and where it is going. Co-hosted with the Arizona Society for Human Resources Management at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, this full-day program features speakers from Steptoe’s Labor & Employment group, as well as:
- Marvin Kaplan, NLRB Chair
- Philip A. Miscimarra, NLRB Immediate-Past Chair
- Rosemary Ellis, EngenderHealth Interim President and CEO
- John Nelson, Republic Services Labor Relations Director, West Region
Click here for more information, the agenda, and to register. We hope to see you there.
Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board vacated Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors amidst controversy surrounding Member Bill Emanuel’s participation in the decision. That decision leaves intact the Obama-board’s expanded joint employer standard from Browning-Ferris Industries of California, at least until the Board finds another vehicle to overturn the case.
The NLRB’s Office of Inspector General issued a report finding that Member Emanuel should have recused himself from the Hy-Brand decision in light of the close connection between his prior law firm, which represented one of the parties in Browning-Ferris, and the issues in Hy-Brand. The Board noted that report when it issued its Order vacating the decision.
In its fifth major decision in five days, the Board overruled a 2016 decision that limited what changes to terms and conditions of employment that an employer can make without bargaining. In so doing, the Board returned to a broader view of what it means to maintain the “status quo.” In Raytheon Network Centric Systems, 365 NLRB No. 161 (Dec. 15, 2017), the Board held that employers do not need to bargain when “the employer takes actions that are not materially different from what it has done in the past.” In Raytheon, that meant the employer lawfully modified employee medical benefit plans after the CBA expired because the employer had made similar modifications annually for 11 years.
Late Friday evening, the NLRB overruled Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB 934 (2011), the decision that permitted unions to organize “micro-units” of employees. In PCC Structurals, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 160, the Board returned to “the traditional community of interest standard” for evaluating the appropriateness of a petitioned-for bargaining unit.
Today, the NLRB issued two landmark cases reversing precedent on the Board’s test for work rules and joint employment. In The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB No. 154, the Board reversed a 2004 decision that prior Boards used to find unlawful “a large number of common-sense work rules and requirements that most people would reasonably expect every employer to maintain.” In Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB No. 156, the Board overruled the Browning-Ferris joint-employment test and returned to requiring direct control over essential terms and conditions of employment before it will find joint employment status.
On Monday, December 11, 2017, the Board issued a decision holding that Administrative Law Judges can approve an employer’s offer to settle unfair labor practice charges so long as the settlement offer is “reasonable,” even if the general counsel and charging party object to the settlement. The case reverses Obama-era precedent that held that an ALJ can approve a settlement only if the settlement provides “complete relief” for every alleged unfair labor practice. That standard made it impractical for employers to settle unfair labor practice charges because employers received no compromise in exchange for foregoing full-blown litigation.
The newly-appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued his list of priorities in Advice Memo 18-02 released December 4, 2017. The Memo sets forth the “Mandatory Submissions to Advice” – the kinds of cases Regional Directors must submit to the Division of Advice to obtain guidance before issuing a complaint. The Advice Memo signals the GC’s intent to assist the Board in undoing much of the Obama-era Board’s sweeping changes to federal labor law. As predicted, many of the priorities focus on the Board’s handbook-related changes, granting employee access to employer email systems, and confidentiality rules in investigations.
On October 10, Local 100, United Labor Unions filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Dallas Cowboys claiming that it unlawfully threatened players to prevent them from engaged in protected concerted activity. Earlier this week, Cowboys’ general manager Jerry Jones threatened to bench players who refused to stand for the national anthem.
The charge highlights how simple it is for literally anyone on the street to file an unfair labor practice (“ULP”) charge. Local 100 does not represent the players—the National Football League Players Association does. But anyone can file a ULP charge—the NLRB requires no standing.
The charge also raises the interesting question of whether kneeling for the national anthem constitutes concerted activity protected by the NLRA, even under the NLRB’s currently broad standards. The NLRA protects “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” but only as it relates to terms and conditions of employment. Protesting social and racial injustice, broadly speaking, does not relate to the players’ working conditions, particularly where none of the players have claimed poor treatment by the NFL or their teams. But if players kneel to support other players (such as Colin Kaepernick) or to protest Jones’s new rule, such conduct could earn the protection of the Act.
On October 3, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 306, dramatically limiting an employer’s right to defend itself against allegations that it retaliated against an employee for making wage claims. In short, the law makes it far easier for employees and the California Labor Commissioner to obtain injunctive relief in retaliation cases, potentially requiring employers to reinstate discharged employees before an employer can fully defend itself against the allegations. The law takes effect January 1, 2018.
The law allows the Labor Commissioner or an employee to obtain injunctive relief against an employer based on a mere showing that “reasonable cause exists to believe a violation has occurred.” That’s a far lower burden of proof than a court’s typical standard for injunctive relief, which requires a showing that (1) the employee will suffer irreparable harm, (2) the employee will likely succeed on the merits, and (3) the employee’s interests outweigh the employer’s. The law also requires a court considering a request for an injunction to evaluate “the chilling effect on other employees.”
Other features of the new law that restrict employers’ rights include:
- Authorizing the Labor Commissioner to seek injunctive relief before concluding its own investigation;
- Permitting the Labor Commissioner to initiate investigations on its own, “without a complaint,” if the suspected retaliation occurred during the adjudication of a wage claim or a field inspection, or in instances of immigration-related threats;
- Allowing the Labor Commissioner to issue its own citations ordering reinstatement or back pay, without going to court;
- Placing a heavy burden on the employer to challenge Labor Commissioner citations, including requiring the employer to post a bond equal to the total amount of back pay allegedly owed.
Key Takeaways: The new law increases the need for California employers to make careful, well-reasoned, and thoroughly-documented disciplinary and discharge decisions. Notably, when employees make wage claims, they often also simultaneously engage in protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA. Given the potential overlap between the Labor Commissioner’s jurisdiction and the NLRB’s jurisdiction, employers facing legal action under the new law should consider whether an NLRA preemption defense applies.